Phaedra Hise on October 3, 2016 1 Comment California has owned our domestic wine industry for a long time. Not that it happened overnight. There was a time when the world thought California wines were undrinkable copies of Old World favorites. Then California wines started winning awards, and the wine experts quit laughing. That’s kind of where we are today with some of the upstart wine-growing states like New York, Texas and Virginia. Actually, they’re not really upstarts. Growers in Texas planted vines in the mid-1600s. Not that the results were any good, which has been pretty much the opinion for decades about wines from many parts of the U.S. Fortunately, that’s changing. We can now find a wide variety of legit award-winning vintages from a handful of maturing wine-growing states. Growers have figured out which varietals grow well in what climates, and non-California states are carving out their own areas of expertise. We’re taking a look at several of these emerging wine powerhouse states, focusing on what makes each great, what wines to look for, and why. We’ll start with the land where Thomas Jefferson tried, and spectacularly failed, to establish viticulture in the New World: Virginia. Virginia Wines Are Breaking Out Virginia is 5th in the U.S. for number of wineries and grape production. That’s a wildly successful transition from Jefferson’s disastrous attempts to grow European wine grapes at Monticello, where they succumbed repeatedly to Phylloxera – clusters of tiny insects destroying the plant roots and spreading like wildfire through the vineyards. In fact, Jefferson is sometimes blamed for causing the Great French Wine Blight of the mid-1800s. Apparently he may or may not have sent France a gift of several of his young vines, not knowing they were infected. Twenty years ago, it was mostly brave locals with a sweet tooth who were drinking Virginia wines. Ten years ago, visitors were buying cases for cellaring from a few increasingly serious wineries like Barboursville Vineyards. Today, word is spreading about the assortment of top-notch wines from several Virginia producers. In fact, last year more than 50 Virginia wines received a 90 or better from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. One of the award-winners to try is the 2013 Petit Verdot from King Family Vineyards. The deep red Petit Verdot is one of Virginia’s signature grapes, and this spicy and complex standout has a has a mild fruit finish that makes it perfect to enjoy with strong foods like Stilton cheese, barbecue or grilled meats. More Microclimates Means More Variety In the 1970s, everyone wanted to copy California’s success. Wine drinkers were familiar with the California varietals, so growers in Virginia tried cultivating the Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons that had done so well on the west coast. But it turns out that Virginia’s hot, humid, hilly climate with clay soils is nothing like the temperate California desert. Once local winegrowers figured that out, the game changed. Virginia growers began experimenting with more options. They studied Virginia’s wide range of microclimates, which include warm hillsides, cool valleys, red clay and river sediment. In fact, once they started looking around, Virginia winegrowers realized their home state has a lot in common with the warmer wine regions of France, Italy and Spain. Virginia today has found happy homes for many varietals from those regions, including Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinot Grigio, Tannat, Nebbiolo, Vermentino, Merlot, Albariño and Pinot Noir. Standouts include the 2014 Petit Manseng from Michael Shaps Wineworks. Petit Manseng is a somewhat obscure French grape that grows well in central Virginia’s Piedmont region. This varietal is dry with fruity highlights, and its zingy tang stands up well to roasted or grilled poultry. Tannat is poised to be the next big Virginia grape, and the 2014 Tannat from newcomer Upper Shirley Vineyards, just outside Richmond, showcases why. This moody red can highlight a rich meal today, but also promises to age well for showcasing later. Look for Interesting Blends Virginia’s climate isn’t as steady and predictable as California’s, and that can mess heavily with the grape harvest. Maybe one year it rains. Or rains for an incredibly long time, like this record-setting wet spring. Then another year might bring drought. In some years frost strikes in late spring, after the grapes have flowered, and growers struggle to save the tender vines. Other years frost comes in early fall, before some varieties have ripened. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is a slow grower, demanding a long, warm season. Virginia gets a good harvest only about every five years. Merlot and Cabernet Franc, however, ripen early and love warm weather, so they have become popular Virginia “go-to” grapes. Each year brings a fresh new climate challenge, and so Virginia growers respond by creating powerful blends. Unlike France, with its centuries of rules and regulations about what can or can’t be blended or experimented with, Virginians mix and stir at will. Blends not only let vintners try creating new flavors, but it hedges the farming risks. If it’s a bad year for Petit Verdot, a vintner can turn to the Cabernet Franc and still put out reasonable quantity of good wines for that year. Merlot is one of Virginia’s most successful grapes, and as such it contributes to a number of terrific blends. One of the best is Barboursville’s 2013 Octagon – an estate blend aged in its own special room at the winery. Octagon is a big red to compliment a fine lamb rack or aged ribeye. Don’t Buy the Cheap Bottles Shop for Virginia Wine Here! It’s pretty easy to find a decent quaffing California red or white for around $10-$15, but Virginia doesn’t play that game. You can definitely find inexpensive Virginia wines, but those aren’t the state’s best offerings. Usually they are blends featuring out-of-state bulk grapes bought from contract growers, or overflow from other vineyards. Considering that any vintner would want to keep the best grapes for the estate, you can do your own guessing as to what they’re most likely selling. Virginia needs to buy out-of-state grapes if they are to offer a wide range of bottle prices, and that’s because Virginia grapes are very labor intensive to grow. The average price of a ton of grapes in Virginia is about $1750, but in California the ton price averages only about $500, according to Annette Boyd at the Virginia Wine Board. California grapes are cheaper because growers are able to mechanize a lot of their labor, and they also don’t have to treat the wide variety of molds, diseases and pests that Virginia breeds. In the fine traditions of winegrowers in France, Italy and Spain, Virginia’s vine tending and harvesting is done almost exclusively by hand. This means that the drinkable wines are more in the $15-20 range, with some truly great vintages selling for over $60. If you want to try a Virginia bottle at a friendly price, consider one of Virginia’s increasingly popular cideries, which ferment local apples instead of grapes. Look for the Handmade Cider or award-winning Serious Cider from Foggy Ridge Cider, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also the Charred Ordinary from Blue Bee Cider in Richmond. This new wave of ciders is dry and crisp, with tannins that make them food-friendly. Pair These Wines With Food Annette Boyd explains that when she takes Virginia wines overseas, tasters expect the high-alcohol, big wines from California – flavors that European wine drinkers aren’t accustomed to. They are pleasantly surprised to find that Virginia wines more closely follow the Continental flavor profile and style. The two key similarities that Virginia wines have with their European role models are that they tend to have higher acidity and lower alcohol. This means they’re perfectly suited to go with food. Experienced sommeliers at top-notch restaurants are featuring Virginia wines. Award-winning restaurant The Roosevelt in Richmond actually has an all-Virginia wine list. Several Virginia wineries are also showcasing this talent by opening their own high-end restaurants to feature their recommended pairings. These include the Farm to Table restaurant at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards; Palladio at Barboursville; Café Provencal at Williamsburg Winery and the restaurant at Upper Shirley Vineyards. All feature seasonal, local produce and have hired experienced chefs to run the kitchen. Upper Shirley and Pippin Hill even have kitchen gardens on the property. As the “eat local” movement expands, wine drinkers in many parts of the country can now join the party. The explosion of great viticulture in Virginia means that the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast have plenty of vintages to call their own. Try one, and share a few insights about Virginia vineyards at your next wine dinner, cookout or picnic.